Suburban Seeker

There beneath the blue suburban skies

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Diabetes and No-Self

An article from The Week caught my eye today. As it turns out, we Americans are now drinking “58 gallons of water a year, a 38 percent increase from 1998’s average of 42 gallons. Back then, the numbers were reversed: Americans quaffed 54 gallons of soda a year, 23 percent more than the 44 gallons we drink now.”

I don’t know about you (actually, according to the statistics, I might) but even 44 gallons of soda a year seems insane. I’m assuming these numbers are skewed by the “heavy users” of soda, but they are still staggering. Everyone knows that soda, though delicious, is bad for them, and yet we continue to indulge. Why might this be?

Keith Wagstaff at The Week attributes our high levels of soda consumption to the Cola Wars of the 1980s, during which Pepsi and Coke tried to out-advertise one another to increase market share. This effort to give our kids diabetes will soon look as vile as selling cigarettes to kids.

Fortunately, there is an upside to these two historically diabetes-based corporate titans slugging it out: “Following a concerted push by beverage companies to convince consumers to buy water in a bottle, as opposed to turning on the old tap, the consumption of bottled water has skyrocketed to 21 gallons a year per capita.”

What does it mean to be a human being in an age where advertising causes behavior change? One can argue for the importance of free will all you want (and I do) but facts don’t lie. Corporations (and politicians) spend money on advertising because they know it causes people to change their behavior and even their opinions.

The argument can always be made that companies (and politicians) are only giving people what they want. But when “what people want” can be changed through advertising, this becomes a tautological absurdity.

My personal solution is to watch less television, mute the commercials when I do, run Adblock when online, and whenever I am confronted with an ad, figure out who the demographic is, why they are being targeted, what cues are being used in the ad to get their attention, which human psychological traits are being preyed on, etc.  Basically to distill it down to its core, which is always to convince people to spend their money or votes on a particular product.

This is exhausting, and in all probability ineffective. If more people began to do the same thing, advertising executives would follow the trend and develop advertising that caters to it. Call it anti-advertising.

On the one hand, this is unsurprising. The Buddhist notion of no-self fits quite nicely with the idea that who we are as human beings is determined largely by factors outside our control, and that a completely autonomous human being is impossible. It’s either nature or nurture, but in either case it’s external to you.

That said, it is possible to change who you are, to exercise free will, especially by changing the things that shape you. If you exercise, you get in shape. If you associate  with poets and read poetry, you can become more empathetic. If you associate with scientists and read science journals, you can become more knowledgeable and discerning.

But change of this sort takes a concerted effort over time. And those of us who do not liked being shaped by excessive consumerism, fight a difficult battle, because people who want to sell us things are making a concerted effort over time to get us to give them our time and money.

So enjoy your soda, everyone. You have been convinced that consuming a can of soda a day is perfectly normal by companies that do not give a damn if you get diabetes or heart disease. In an age of plenty, the people with the strongest willpower, the best developed ability to say “no” to passing pleasures, to ignore the persuasive power of mass media, will thrive. Good luck.

All of the Information

This good read from The New York Times came across my Twitter feed today from their Gray Matter blog (which tends to be interesting). It is a discussion of reader comments on web articles and how they can color readers’ perceptions of things they had already read and it got me thinking.

I love the internet, and I love having it in my pocket. I love having access to nearly all the information there is in the world. It is truly mind boggling to think that to children being born today, this is the default.

But I worry that, as is so often the case, we rush into the technology without taking the time to see how it affects us. This is a theme I am sure I will return to – I can’t help it. Despite my recently professed love for the internet, I can be very much the luddite.

It is wonderful that we can access so much information. But the flip side is that there is simply too much information for any one human brain to handle and so it becomes necessary to filter the information we do consume.

This leads to the kind of dialogue we currently have in the world where people aren’t even speaking from the same set of facts when trying to solve problems. Where one’s views never need to be challenged and where you can always find an expert with a website to validate your preconceived notions about the world.

What this requires, I think, is a new sort of Renaissance Man. One who knows where he stands in the world, but is not afraid of broadening his horizons. One who visits TricycleThe Longing Soul, and Richard Dawkins. One who reads the editorials in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The world is a bigger and more complicated place than we will ever know, and that is fine. It is bigger and more complicated than any one ideology, philosophy, or religion can encompass. It is certainly bigger and more complicated than you think, no matter how sure of yourself you may be.

Best to explore it a bit. Seek out uncertainty. And be nice to one another in message boards. Because, as with all technology, it will be a force for good or bad depending on how we use it.

How to Meditate – Step 3

This is what I do.

I stack two cushions on my zabuton, though the floor works fine too if your knees can take it. (My legs are long so I need two cushions to raise my backside off the ground. You may need one or three – find what works for you.)

I sit on the cushions in what is called the Burmese Position. Sometimes I sit half-lotus, sometimes I sit full-lotus, sometimes I sit upright in a chair. I swing my body to the left and right to find a good center of balance. I turn my head and stretch my neck. I set my timer to thirty minutes and begin.

I take a deep, slow breath. I feel it brush against my nose. I feel my diaphragm fill. I feel my mind calm a bit. I let it out slowly. I feel it brush against my nose. I feel my diaphragm contract. My mind calms further.

If my mind is being particularly troublesome, as yours will likely be when you begin, I count my breaths. I repeat the previous paragraph’s instructions, and at the end of each exhalation think to myself “one” then “two” then “three” until I reach “ten”. Ten breaths. When my mind is being troublesome I often don’t make it past three before I forget that I am breathing and become distracted by work to be done, memories I enjoy, memories I don’t. When that happens I say to myself, “Ok. Let’s try this again.” And I begin again at “one”.

If my mind is being cooperative, I just breath. I don’t count my breaths, I just watch them. And after awhile, if my mind is being very cooperative, I don’t even watch them. I just breathe. When thoughts arise, as they always do, I try not to follow them or let them disturb my breathing. 

Sometimes I like to imagine an endless ocean, where my thoughts are the waves at the top. But as my thoughts slow down, I begin to sink deeper into dark, cool water. This deep, cool water is always there, but you can’t see it if you’re hanging out on the surface.

Your mind is going to hate this exercise when you start. Your mind is used to being in control, of seeking out stimulation. By meditating you are asking your mind to do something it is not used to doing. It is like asking your lungs and your legs to come along with you when you begin running to get healthy. They will protest at first, but eventually, with practice, they will come around.

Beyond this is to get into specifics, which I do not want to do. A simple Google search will introduce you to many different forms of meditation. What I want to impress on you is that they are all good. Pick one you like and work with it. Don’t worry if you’re doing it wrong. You are a beginner and a beginner will necessarily do things wrong. That’s no reason not to begin.

How to Meditate – Step 2

Step 2 – Don’t dick around on the internet for a full thirty minutes

I hope you enjoyed your first lesson and I trust that it was not too difficult.

But now we move on to the really good, meditativey stuff. You’ve got your thirty minutes, now we’ve got to figure out what to do with them. Grab a timer.

Experienced practitioners will meditate for their full thirty minutes, and oftentimes more. You should not try to this at first unless you have a much stronger will than I do. Your brain is really going to hate meditating and unless you feel like beating it with a stick for thirty minutes, it is better to ease in.

As to the mechanics of meditating, I won’t discuss them too much. The reasons are twofold: there are plenty of good books on the subject, but also because I think it is valuable to begin without worrying too much about doing it “right”. I personally use the Zen Buddhist method as it is the one that has always worked the best for me. (It is called zazen and its practitioners argue that it isn’t technically meditating at all. Practitioners of things like to argue about said things.)

If my basic description of the mechanics of meditating doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, poke around elsewhere and I’m sure you’ll find something you like. Plus, for this lesson, we’ll only be “meditating” for a couple minutes.

Let’s begin. Set your phone to silent and your timer to countdown from five minutes.

For the first five minutes or so, let your mind wander wherever it wants. No texting or interneting. Let your mind wander to good or bad places. Many of your thoughts will likely be along the lines of, “This is fucking stupid”. That’s ok.

Ok. Set your timer for five minutes. Now go read this (for something Buddhism-y) or this (for something Christian-ish; verses 1-14) or this (for secularists and everyone else too). Or maybe all three. Or maybe something different. The goal here is to instill in yourself a sense of wonder and beauty and awe at the world. Read them very slowly. Think about them. If you don’t dig one link, click another. If none of them do it for you, try to find one for yourself.

Ok. We’re about ten minutes in now.

Now, we’re going to meditate for two minutes. Sit comfortably with good posture, back straight, holding yourself with respect. Breath in and out through your nose. Slowly, with great care. Try to focus on your breath and nothing else.

Now we’re just shy of 15 minutes. Do what you want with the rest of your time, but keep quiet and do not go on the internet or turn on your TV. If you want to meditate for longer, feel absolutely free to do so. Chores are also helpful after meditating.

How to Meditate – Step 1

Step 1 – Find thirty minutes

This should be very easy to do but is often seen as difficult if not impossible. But there are one thousand four hundred forty minutes each day. Pick thirty of them that are touching each other.

Some people prefer to meditate in the morning, some people prefer the evening. There may be advantages to both or either but I do not want to talk about that. Many people who meditate for the first time worry far too much that they are “doing it wrong”. They probably are; they are beginners after all. But worrying about doing something wrong often leads to not doing it at all. So let’s not worry about details just yet.

Find thirty consecutive minutes that will be used for practice each day.

If you protest that this is impossible, that between your job, your kids, your exercise regimen, and your house work you simply do not have thirty minutes to spare, let me assure you that you are lying.

It is ok that you are lying. The lie of being busy is a lie we all tell. I’ve worked with many people whose lips say they haven’t a moment to spare but whose internet browsing history tells a different story.

Did you read the news online today? Did you watch a TV show or a movie? Did you browse Facebook or Reddit?

Don’t lie, I know you did. And it’s ok. But this is where we begin. There are ten thousand things clamoring for your attention right now – at this very second. To begin and to progress we must learn to turn them off.

So. Find thirty minutes. Find thirty minutes in which you will be able to sit each day.

Now go ahead and dick around online with them. Or read a book. Use a timer and when the thirty minutes are up, stand up and continue on your day. Dick around on the internet for thirty minutes, but do it deliberately, confident that you have taken the first step on what will hopefully prove to be a profound journey.

That is all for now. It’s not much but this is probably the most important step. You must make the time to sit and be quiet, and because that is something our culture frowns on, it can be the hardest thing to do.

Why Meditate?

Meditating is all the rage these days, and for good reason I think. It seems to be a good prescription for a lot of what ails our poor beleaguered modern minds. We are far too stimulated, and we are becoming unable to focus on anything for very long.

Because of this, meditation is prescribed to reduce stress, to control overeating, for assistance with addiction, to help with depression, and many other reasons. These are all good and fair reasons, but they are not the reason I personally meditate.

We are suffering a crisis of conscience in the West and have been for some time. The past few decades have seen simultaneous rising standards of living and incidences of mental illness. But those are completely incompatible. How can everyone’s living standards be going up when everyone is depressed and crazy?

The problem is that “living standard” is defined incorrectly. It takes into account health and longevity, which is a relatively good indicator. (Although the two are often looked at separately. People are living longer, but at the end they often become very sick, miserable, and immobile for many years, which doesn’t seem to be a good way to live, but let’s leave that for now.)

The rest of one’s standard of living seems to be tied entirely to how much one is able to consume. Are you able to buy a new TV every time you want one? Does everyone have a car, and if so, is it new enough? Everyone has clean water and plumbing, and pretty much everyone has enough food, so now that our needs are met, do we have enough disposable income to keep this economy of ours chugging along?

Which gets to the root of the problem: we have become consumers. Not citizens, not human beings, not artists or warriors, but consumers. And that is no way to live, because consumption, by its very nature, is an unending process that can never bring lasting happiness.

The first of the Buddhist noble truths is that life is, by its very nature, dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it’s better described as unsatisfactory. You will age, you will get sick, you will have unmet desires; it is in the very nature of existence that this be so. The rest of the noble truths provide a good way to deal with this fact. The modern world does too, but it is the worst possible remedy: consume more. If you are unhappy, you should probably go buy something.

And of course we all believe it – it is an entirely unfair fight. There are very smart people who wear very expensive suits who studied the human psyche at elite universities for many years and are now paid a lot of money to develop advertisements that specifically prey on your weaknesses and insecurities to create desires in you so that you will give your money away for no real reason. In school we are not taught this, in the adult world no one notices it. But we are surrounded by what can be fairly described as brainwashing.

I meditate because I fully believe this is the wrong way to live. I believe that through finding inner peace and developing loving kindness for the world, we can live a better life, both for the individual and those around us. But this requires seeing the world as it is, not as it is sold to us.

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

The Meat Industry Now Consumes Four-Fifths of All Antibiotics

I for one can’t wait to go back to the good ol’ days when there was no such thing as antibiotics and a small cut could easily kill you. This seems like the kind of thing that could kill us all, if our overconsumption of meat wasn’t doing it already.

If nothing else, at least we get cheap, poor quality meat from sick animals in the meantime.

Never eat fast food. Eat less meat. Eat better quality meat when you do. If not for ethical reasons, then for the simple gross-out factor. (Who wants to eat the flesh of animals that lived in such filthy conditions they needed daily doses of antibiotics to stay alive?)

But the ethical reasons are important too. We’re only alive for a bit – isn’t it better to decrease the suffering of other creatures while we’re here rather than increase it?

Brad Warner is Not a Zen Buddhist

Brad Warner is Not a Zen Buddhist

What has always drawn me to Zen is that it tries to get to the heart of the way things ARE. In this moment. Not what Buddha said, not what your parents said, not what you have been raised and conditioned to think. I don’t know if this mentality is entirely compatible with “religion”. This post by Brad Warner is a good discussion of this ambivalence.

Eco-Buddhism

I highly recommend this excellent piece by David Loy, who recently conducted an online retreat on Tricycle which was also excellent called ‘Transforming Self, Transforming Earth: A Buddhist Ecology’. I hope this is the direction modern American Buddhism is trending.

The fundamental problem we moderns in the West face is a crisis of who or what we are in the world. We don’t have recourse to a God to fix our problems anymore, to punish us when we are bad and reward us when we are good. For most of our history we had that, but the modern world is confronted with a nihilism the likes of which is unique in human history.

The metaphor for God has long been that of a father with we humans playing the role of his children. I like this metaphor, and I think it is apt. But what it means is that now that we no longer have God, we need to grow up.

Children are incapable of long-term planning. They are selfish and greedy. A good parent will steer them along life’s path and ingrain in them good values: hard work, love, will power, and the like because once they are older they will have to rely on these values without being forced to.

We have reached that point as a species. The time has come to grow up, to stop looking out for our own individual selfish interests and learn how to be adults. How to plan for the future and how to share with others. So far we’re not doing great at it, but we’re still new to it. We just turned 21 and spent a year hitting the bars. But now it’s time to sober up and act like responsible adults. It’s not as fun, but “fun” is overrated.

Climate change presents us with this problem square in the face. If we do not address it you and I probably won’t suffer too much. Future generations will suffer, though. It is very hard to tell someone to stop doing something they enjoy now because it will benefit them in the future. However this is one of the primary lessons that adults need to learn to truly become mature. If we are to grow up as a species, we must do the same.

The last line of Candide by Voltaire provides us with a starting point: Il faut cultiver notre jardin. We must cultivate our own garden.

I don’t know if this is enough, but it must be the place we start. If we do not find inner peace and live our lives with love for those closest to us, how can we ever hope to save the world at large? In this way, the spiritual life, though it may appear selfish and narcissistic at first, is actually the opposite.

By spending time in reflection, you will invariably find that “you” are not as independent of the world as you’ve been conditioned to think. In fact, your happiness and well being is inextricably linked with that of every other person, creature, and thing on this planet. You will learn to live selflessly, which is our highest aspiration.

Suburbia

Suburbia is a strange place in that it isn’t really a place at all. You may not notice it on a day-to-day basis, particularly if you grew up in the suburbs, but the model is the same wherever you find it: 1) Cover an area in concrete; 2) Put buildings on the concrete [separate residential areas from everything else by several miles]; 3) Put some dirt down in front of houses and in other places and plant non-native species of plants in it.

What this leads to is a home that doesn’t feel particularly unique to where one lives in the world. If you look at a picture of a suburban home in Arizona, versus Colorado, versus Washington, you will be hard pressed to tell them apart.

This is a terrible model environmentally speaking. Everything is spread out so cars, with all their pollution problems, are a necessity. And because the model relies on non-native plants it is water intensive. At the same time it requires uniformity, so the perennial nature of many plants (particularly grasses) becomes a negative thing. If you let your grass die in the summer it will come back just fine in the winter, but it will mean scowls from your neighbors all summer.

And if you want to keep your grass looking a particularly unnatural shade of green all year long, you need to add fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides to it. These things eventually run off your property even when used sparingly (and they’re never used sparingly) when it rains and end up in the stormdrain system.

This system leads directly to creeks, rivers, streams, bays, and the ocean. Because even when it doesn’t feel like you’re living somewhere in the natural world, you always are.

Suburbia is also a terrible model for the seeker. The spiritual life seeks connection with the world, but suburban life provides a way to retreat from it. And since suburbia isn’t going anywhere any time soon, it behooves us as seekers to create a sense of place out of what we have.

Some ideas: plant a garden that uses native plants. This is good for the environment and will help you to identify with where you live. Find the creeks that run through your town; they’re always there though often hidden from view for some strange reason. (The movement in the 1950s by flood control agencies to increase the storage capacity of natural creeks by turning them into concrete-lined channels is one of the more egregious civic projects of that past century.)

See if you can hike to a hill outside of your town. Find a place where you can look down and see how the natural ecology of your bit of the world surrounds your town. Seen in this context you can see that the world is still mostly landscape – our personal view is dominated by the concrete and asphalt of town because that is where we spend most of our time. But the seeker needs to be ever mindful that one’s immediate experience is not the whole story.

And as always, turn off your damn TV.